Commentary Magazine


Topic: politics

Why Politics Matters

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

Read More

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, who edits the quarterly National Affairs, recently was interviewed by William Kristol as part of his “Conversations With” series.

In the course of their conversation Mr. Levin, in speaking about policy, says it’s about problem-solving–not ultimate problems but practical ones. This is vital in allowing a society to function well and to become its best self. And he added this:

Politics in the end is moved by arguments. The intellectual work does matter. I think it does absolutely shape outcomes. But it happens in a way that relies on a kind of food chain. Things have to move through our intellectual world and it doesn’t move directly from that kind of work to policymaking; there has to be some time to digest, to think it through. I think that happens on a lot of important issues in our politics. So I am impressed with how ideas move politics but you know it’s not a direct process. Not a simple one.

This is vital to remember. In thinking about politics, after all, people are frustrated with the gridlock and the conflict, the deal-making, the maneuvering, and the mundane. They are disenchanted with the pace and direction of change and those who are in public life for personal aggrandizement. Americans are frustrated and angry with politicians, with politics, and with one another. And so it’s important to remind ourselves, as Levin does, that politics is moved by arguments–haltingly, imperfectly, but inevitably.

(It’s probably worth adding here, if only as a side note, that in America we tend to romanticize our past. Even the Constitutional Convention of 1787–which featured the most extraordinary collection of political minds since ancient Athens–had its own low moments, frustrations and fierce, polarizing battles. It was one of our greatest founders, James Madison, who in Federalist #55 wrote, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” And our greatest president, Lincoln, presided over a nation that was a good deal more polarized–lethally polarized–than ours is today. So some perspective is in order.)

There are several layers to public and political arguments. One of them is focused on hard facts and empirical data, on social science and different governing approaches related to a range of issues like crime, education, health care, welfare, economic growth, and social mobility.

But the other, deeper layer has to do with arguments grounded in political theory, dealing with matters like liberty and equality, individual responsibility and civic duty, justice and human dignity. The greatest practitioners of statecraft are able to make both sets of arguments–to show a mastery of public policy and the ability to articulate a public philosophy. To explain the means and the ends of government and the good society.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature, to paraphrase the 20th century columnist Walter Lippmann. The way that picture developments determines the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilization we create. The political philosophy of Madison produces one set of results; the political philosophy of Marx produces another. So yes: ideas move politics in one direction or the other, toward justice or away from it. Like all things human, it’s imperfect, frustrating, and fraught with failure. It’s a long, hard grind. And it’s not always aesthetically pleasing. But cynicism that leads to political disengagement–the world-weary, pox-on-both-your-houses, what difference does it make, I don’t give a damn attitude that seems rather fashionable and trendy these days–can lead to disaster. Because someone’s ideas will prevail. If ones that advance justice and human flourishing win out, it won’t be by accident or by default. It’ll be the product of determined effort; of those who do not grow weary in doing good.

Read Less

Why We Dehumanize Political Opponents

The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

Read More

The Village Voice publishes a weekly blog in which the musician and entertainer Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier – better known by his stage name Andrew W.K. – takes questions from readers. A recent exchange caught my attention, starting with a letter in which the correspondent complained that the author’s father is a “super right-wing conservative who has basically turned into a total assho*e intent on ruining our relationship and our planet with his politics.”

The reader, a self-described liberal Democrat with very progressive values, writes, “I know that people like my dad are going to destroy us all. I don’t have any good times with him anymore. All we do is argue…. I love him no matter what, but how do I explain to him that his politics are turning him into a monster, destroying the environment, and pushing away the people who care about him?”

Andrew W.K. responded this way: “Try to find a single instance where you referred to your dad as a human being, a person, or a man. There isn’t one. You’ve reduced your father — the person who created you — to a set of beliefs and political views and how it relates to you.” He adds

You’ve also reduced yourself to a set of opposing views, and reduced your relationship with him to a fight between the two. The humanity has been reduced to nothingness and all that’s left in its place is an argument that can never really be won. And even if one side did win, it probably wouldn’t satisfy the deeper desire to be in a state of inflamed passionate conflict…. The world is being hurt and damaged by one group of people believing they’re truly better people than the others who think differently.

I should say here that I dissent from some of what Andrew W.K. says, including this statement: “No matter how bad someone may appear, they are truly no worse than us. Our beliefs and behavior don’t make us fundamentally better than others, no matter how satisfying it is to believe otherwise.”

This assertion cannot be true. Some people who appear bad actually are bad. It is precisely the beliefs and behavior of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jon-Il, Bashar al-Assad, Idi Amin, Khaled Mashaal, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Timothy McVeigh and countless others — that make them fundamentally worse than you or I. Some individuals really and truly are monsters.

But where I think he is on to something important is how many of us allow reasonable but pronounced political differences to dissolve human bonds. How politics and life are fairly complicated matters that we’re tempted to reduce to simplistic formulas. And how we often assume our vantage point is the only valid one and make very little effort to see things from the point of view of those with whom we most disagree. Andrew W.K. writes, “We cling to the hope that some day, if we really refine our world view and beliefs, we can actually find the fully correct way to think — the absolute truth and final side to stand on.”

This called to mind a recent conversation I had in which I found myself observing that there’s a crucial distinction that’s sometimes lost on me and among people whom I know, including those within my faith community.

It’s the distinction between believing in objective truth and believing we can fully apprehend and access it. As my friend put it, “I believe in objective truth, but I hold more lightly to our ability to perceive truth.” His wife added that she’s found we need to learn to live with greater humility, to live with open hands, faithfully seeking truth without constantly demanding certitude.

I’m fully aware of the danger this can introduce: relativism. The perspective I’m offering, if over-interpreted, can drain us of our convictions, making us less willing to fight for things that are worth fighting for. It can lead us into a world of existential confusion and ultimately, despair.

There’s no hard-and-fast rule that will help us find just the right setting between unwarranted assurance and unwarranted uncertainty. We can all come up with scenarios in which each one, at the wrong time, can lead to disaster. What we need depends in large part on where we stand and what our predisposition, our default position, is.

I will say that most people who inhabit the worlds in which I travel in – the worlds of politics, political philosophy and theology — lean too much in the direction of assuming we know the full truth as against leaning too much in the direction of having little confidence we can ascertain any of the truth. We therefore tend to ignore evidence that challenges our assumptions and resist honest self-examination. We spend all of our time defending what we deem to be the truth; as a result, we have almost no time to actually reflect on it and refine our views of it.

“What I want in our students,” my good and wise friend told me, “and what I admire are people who are teachable, who are open to arguments, who make room for other perspectives.”

People of a certain cast of mind will roll their eyes at such words. They are the ones who most need to hear them.

Read Less

The Nobility of Politics

William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

Read More

William Kristol, among his many duties, hosts Conversations with Bill Kristol, which feature in-depth conversations with leading figures in American public life. (The interviews are sponsored by the Foundation for Constitutional Government, a not-for-profit organization devoted to supporting the serious study of politics and political philosophy.) Among those interviewed by Kristol are Elliott Abrams, Leon and Amy Kass, Charles Murray, and Harvey Mansfield.

My intention is to eventually focus on each of the conversations, which are fascinating. But I want to start with the discussion Kristol had with his former teacher, Dr. Mansfield, a longtime professor of political philosophy at Harvard.

Professor Mansfield started out intending to be a political scientist but moved to political philosophy. A teacher of Mansfield’s, Sam Beer, convinced him that political science needed a theoretical background, a foundation underneath it. As an undergraduate, Mansfield concluded that:

political science was not enough by itself because it doesn’t judge. When you study facts, facts ask to be judged. A fact presents itself as something, which is either good or bad – and people who deal with facts either deserve to be praised or blamed.

It doesn’t seem really possible to stop and say, “I’m not going to be concerned with evaluation.” Political philosophy is concerned with evaluation because political facts aren’t sufficient by themselves and they ask to be judged.

This is quite a crucial point; it is what’s known in philosophy as the facts-value distinction, in which facts are considered “what is” and values are “what ought to be.” Facts may be true and explain the material world, but they can’t see beyond the material to help us understand the good, the beautiful and the true. They can’t elucidate what is justice and why human beings have inherent dignity. Facts alone can’t impart wisdom or explain what is right and moral. They can’t quite make sense of statements like “My kingdom is not of this world” and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

One of the distinctions between the ancients and the moderns–with Machiavelli being considered the founder of modern political philosophy–is that the former, most especially Plato and Aristotle, were more concerned with “the invisible standing behind the visible and necessary to it,” in Mansfield’s words. In Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics, for example, we’re told about the primacy of the good of the soul and that “the best way of life, both for states and for individuals, is the life of goodness.” Moderns, on the other hand, begin from what is visible and are never really able to transcend it.

To be sure, in politics, as in life, facts matter. We can’t operate in our own universe; we have to lead our lives within the four corners of reality. Politics, then, is about respecting facts and being empirically minded. But politics rightly understood is also about ascertaining what the good life and the proper end of the state are. Political philosophy should not aim for the “transvaluation of values”; its aim should be promoting virtue (arête) and human flourishing (eudaimonia).

In speaking about Aristotle, Professor Mansfield says this:

he much more criticizes Plato than, I think, is necessary for him to do. And this too is perhaps a kind of stance on Aristotle’s part to show that Plato had this failing – or maybe it isn’t altogether a failing – of giving too low a view of politics. Politics deserves – there’s a certain nobility to it, in fact, a terrific nobility to it.

And, so Aristotle wanted to bring to our attention the splendor of politics and of the moral virtue that people show in politics. And he thought that Plato had not done this sufficiently. And, so on every page, so to speak, there is a kind of critique of Plato and then Aristotle’s Ethics – there’s an, actually, statement of disagreement with his revered teacher, which he says that he loves his friend, but he loves the truth more, the most beautiful kind of criticism you could give or get.

The nobility and splendor of politics is often obscured; that is the product of being broken people, often passionately holding competing points of view, imperfectly trying to order our lives together. Yet at its deepest level, beneath all the conflict and noise and triviality, there is–there has been, there can be–an ennoblement to politics. From time to time it can bend the arc of the moral universe a bit closer toward justice, make life a little more decent, treat people somewhat more humanely. And that’s actually something worth reminding ourselves about now and then, as Professor Mansfield and his former student Bill Kristol do in their splendid conversation.

Read Less

“Their Presentation Partook Less of Argument Than of a Tribal Incantation”

James Forsyth is the marvelous senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church. He wisely doesn’t give sermons on politics. But he said something that I (and not necessarily he) took to have has some application to politics.

The Reverend Forsyth warned that one of the dangers within Christianity is that “every issue becomes a hill to die on.” He had in mind doctrinal differences that should, in the broad scheme of things, be relatively minor, yet which some people instantly elevate to a matter of high principle. Every issue becomes a referendum on the authority of Scripture. Which leads to unnecessary divisions. And those who disagree with us are people who are not only wrong; their views are a product of bad faith.

Something similar, I think, occurs in politics. For some political activists, both right and left, all issues are of nearly equal importance. All constitute a hill to die on. Those who see things in a different, less apocalyptic light, are deemed to be unprincipled, weak, and hopelessly compromised.

Read More

James Forsyth is the marvelous senior pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church. He wisely doesn’t give sermons on politics. But he said something that I (and not necessarily he) took to have has some application to politics.

The Reverend Forsyth warned that one of the dangers within Christianity is that “every issue becomes a hill to die on.” He had in mind doctrinal differences that should, in the broad scheme of things, be relatively minor, yet which some people instantly elevate to a matter of high principle. Every issue becomes a referendum on the authority of Scripture. Which leads to unnecessary divisions. And those who disagree with us are people who are not only wrong; their views are a product of bad faith.

Something similar, I think, occurs in politics. For some political activists, both right and left, all issues are of nearly equal importance. All constitute a hill to die on. Those who see things in a different, less apocalyptic light, are deemed to be unprincipled, weak, and hopelessly compromised.

My own sense of things is that driving all this is a kind of psychic satisfaction that is produced by engaging in relentless combat, including (and sometimes especially) with the perceived infidels on one’s own side. Those who possess this cast of mind revel in polarization. They crave separation. They are in principle opposed to comprise. Their mindset is that the other side is malevolent and needs to be destroyed, not negotiated with. The willingness to die on every hill is a moral virtue, a sign of commitment and purification.

To be sure, there are some hills that are (figuratively) worth fighting for and dying for and some lawmakers who will never take a principled stand for fear of blowback. And none of us can know with certainty how to determine whether we are compromising on a key principle or not. We all have issues that are important to us and drawn lines we will not cross. Yet increasingly I have come to believe that where we choose to fight has less to do with the issues per se than with our dispositions and emotional make-up. And unless we understand that, we won’t fully understand what is really at play. We think we’re debating the merits of an issue when we’re really at odds over temperament and certain deeply help perceptions and attitudes.

The Scottish author and politician John Buchan, in writing about the Liberal Party in Scotland in the early part of the 20th century, said, “Its dogmas were so completely taken for granted that their presentation partook less of argument than of a tribal incantation.”

He went on to say this:

While I believed in party government and in party loyalty, I never attained to the happy partisan zeal of many of my friends, being painfully aware of my own and my party’s defects, and uneasily conscious of the merits of my opponent. Like Montaigne I could forgive “neither the commendable qualities of my adversaries nor the reproachful of those I followed.”

I will be the first to acknowledge that seeing our own (and our party’s own) defects and the merits of our opponents is among the hardest things in politics to achieve. As I understand Buchan, though, it doesn’t mean that we give up on core principles or refuse to criticize those whom we think are making errors, particular grave errors. Rather, I take him to be saying that many of us ought to be a bit less dogmatic, that even our understanding of eternal truths periodically requires what he calls “spring-cleaning,” and that many of us should demonstrate something of a lighter touch as we journey through this world. And if in the process we now and then dispense a healing grace, so much the better.

Read Less

Living in “Ideological Silos”

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

Read More

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades.”

Among the other findings:

“Ideological silos” are now common on both the left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Liberals and conservatives disagree over where they want to live, the kind of people they want to live around and even whom they would welcome into their families.

Most of us live in some version of an “ideological silo,” and it makes perfect sense that we do. The deepest friendships, after all, are based not only on common interests but on seeing common truths. Many seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way.

At the same time it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. For one thing, it can insulate us from the strongest arguments that challenge, or might refine and therefore improve, our stance on certain matters. If someone with standing in your life, whose good faith is unquestioned, takes issue with you on a subject having to do with politics or theology, you’re more likely to hear them out, or at least engage with them in a serious rather than dismissive fashion, than if you’re challenged by a stranger.

According to Professor Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias,” the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.”

In addition, creating “ideological silos” makes it much easier to caricature those with whom we disagree. There’s a strong temptation–stronger than most of us like to admit–to personalize political and theological differences; to assume that those who hold views at odds with mine are suffering from character flaws rather than simply intellectual ones.

One example of how things can be done the right way is the relationship between New Testament scholars Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright. They first met in 1984, after Wright read a book by Borg that impressed him but with which he had some disagreements. A friendship grew, even as Borg became one of America’s most popular liberal voices on theology while Wright became perhaps the most prominent standard-bearer for the traditional stance. Borg was a member of the Jesus Seminar; Wright was an outspoken critic. In The Meaning of Jesus, Borg and Wright presented their very different visions of Jesus. While they didn’t reach agreement on many matters, they did eliminate misunderstandings. Neither misrepresented the other. They operated on the assumption that admirable people can have deep and honest disagreements. And in the process they helped people, in their words, “grapple with points of view they might otherwise have dismissed without serious thought.”

In our unusually ideological age, that’s a fairly impressive achievement.

Read Less

“The Philosopher Deals with Truth; the Statesman Addresses Contingencies.”

In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, Henry Kissinger wrote:

For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems.

I thought about this passage while reflecting on the tension that often takes place between activists, academics, and commentators on the one hand and lawmakers and policy makers on the other. They inhabit, if not different worlds, then different continents in the same world.

Read More

In his foreword to Raymond Aron’s book Memoirs: Fifty Years of Political Reflection, Henry Kissinger wrote:

For a man like myself, involved for many years in the mundane tasks of diplomacy, Aron’s book is not always comfortable reading. Clearly, his judgment of my efforts as a statesman is less admiring than mine of his contributions to Western thought. This is as it should be. The philosopher deals with truth; the statesman addresses contingencies. The thinker has a duty to define what is right; the policymaker must deal with what is attainable. The professor focuses on ultimate goals; the diplomat knows that his is a meandering path on which there are few ultimate solutions and whatever “solutions” there are, more often than not turn into a threshold for a new set of problems.

I thought about this passage while reflecting on the tension that often takes place between activists, academics, and commentators on the one hand and lawmakers and policy makers on the other. They inhabit, if not different worlds, then different continents in the same world.

Writers, intellectuals, and those commenting on daily events have the luxury of judging those in power against the standard of perfection, often forgetting that those in authority have to make difficult judgments in imperfect conditions, where opposing parties exist and one’s will cannot be imposed.

Those in positions of political power, on the other hand, need to be held accountable by those who are not. When you work in the highest reaches of government the dangers of insulation and self-justification are enormous, and it’s perfectly legitimate for commentators to offer critical critiques. But in doing so analysts should admit that it’s not all that difficult to offer up harsh judgments about public officials when you’re sitting behind a camera, a microphone, or a keyboard. It’s harder to run a campaign than to comment on one; it’s more difficult to govern than to eviscerate those who do.

Near the end of Memoirs, Aron, in a chapter that is both sympathetic and critical of Secretary Kissinger’s tenure, writes, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

This didn’t keep Aron, a philosopher and journalist of great insight and intellectual courage, from offering powerful and necessary criticisms over the course of his life. (When Marxism and anti-Americanism were in vogue in France, Aron refused to be swept up into those powerful currents.) Yet his assessments were tempered by his appreciation of the different roles played by public intellectuals and those who are in the arena. Here, like in many ways, the qualities Aron possessed are worth emulating.

Read Less

Sam Harris Won’t Change His Mind. But Neither Will Most of the Rest of Us.

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

Read More

Jonathan Haidt is a leading social psychologist. Earlier this month he wrote a fascinating article on why the “New Atheist” Sam Harris won’t change his mind.

Here’s the context: Mr. Harris said he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who submits an essay so logically compelling that it makes him change his mind and renounce his views. Professor Haidt in turn said he would pay Harris $10,000 if anyone could convince Harris to renounce his views. Haidt’s confidence has little to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of the arguments opposed to Harris; it rests instead on Harris’s dogmatism.

What Haidt found in analyzing the works of Harris is that he’s a person who is so deeply committed to his point of view–his investment in his outlook and attitudes are so central to his self-understanding–that no set of arguments, however persuasive, could cause Harris to rethink his previous positions.

If it’s any comfort to Harris, he has a lot of company. In his article Haidt echoes a theme he’s written on before–the enormous power “motivated reasoning” and “confirmation bias” have in our lives.

“People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe,” he writes. “Nobody has yet found a way to ‘debias’ people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated.” Haidt says that his own area of research, moral judgment, makes it clear that “people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later.” David Hume was right when he said that reason was “the slave of the passions” rather than its charioteer.

Haidt observes, too, that “disconfirmation”–being open to having one’s views challenged, learning from this experience, and as a result improving one’s reasoning–depends in part on social relationships. “We engage with friends and colleagues, but we reject any critique from our enemies,” he writes. “Relationships open hearts, and open hearts open minds.”

This doesn’t mean reason doesn’t have a vital role to play or that some individuals aren’t capable of more self-detachment than others. And in terms of Harris’s atheism, Haidt would agree with me, I think, that his arguments about morality, science, and faith still need to be confronted even if Harris harbors great antipathy for religion which skews his judgments.

That said, the core argument made by Haidt is an important one. Assume you believe, as I do, that grounding our views in moral intuitions and what Burke referred to (in an uncritical way) as “prejudice” is entirely legitimate. It’s still the case for many of us that in all sorts of areas–including religion, politics, and philosophy–we subordinate intellectual honesty in order to ratify our pre-existing opinions. We’ve settled on what we believe is the right and true answer; everything after that consists of confirming what we believe.

We all engage in this to some extent; it’s a matter of degree, of whether we’re able to absorb, let alone dispassionately examine, evidence that challenges our presuppositions. That’s true of Sam Harris–and it’s true of me. He has his biases and predilections, I have mine, and you have yours. The question, really, is whether we recognize them and what we do with them. Are they instruments or obstacles to ascertaining the reality of things? 

It’s fair to say, I think, that one of the gifts we sometimes receive in life is to have people who have standing in our lives alert us to our blind spots–and, in the process, gently remind us that searching for truth requires us from time to time to reexamine and refine our assumptions. If you think it’s easy or common, just ask yourself the last time you did it. 

Read Less

“I Am Interested in the Views of the Opposition”

Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

Read More

Over the weekend, while doing research for an essay, I re-read Catherine Drinker Bowen’s wonderful book Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention from May to September 1787. In it she quotes George Washington (a strong Federalist) on the value of the opposition.

“Upon the whole,” Washington wrote, “I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of Government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”

Two centuries later the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin echoed these observations in an interview in which he was asked about critics of the Enlightenment (which Berlin was a great admirer of). 

“I am interested in the views of the opposition because I think that understanding it can sharpen one’s own vision,” Berlin said. “Clever and gifted enemies often pinpoint fallacies or shallow analyses in the thought of the Enlightenment. I am more interested in critical attacks which lead to knowledge than simply in repeating and defending the commonplaces of and about the Enlightenment.”

I cite both Washington and Berlin because what they are saying doesn’t come naturally to most of us and, in fact, runs deeply against our grain. Many of us have settled views on politics, on philosophy, on theology; we’re far more interested in refuting our critics than learning from them. Our moral intuitions and dispositions, our experiences and intellectual vanity can prevent us from appreciating the “new light” that can be cast by those with whom we disagree.

It’s important to note that neither Washington nor Berlin gave up on their deeply held convictions. Washington did not become an anti-Federalist and Berlin did not become a critic of the Enlightenment. What both men were saying, I think, is that our ability to perceive the whole truth is impaired and can be improved upon; and one way it can be improved upon is to carefully weigh the arguments of one’s most (not least) serious critics. Even those we believe are wrong in their final judgments can identify weaknesses in our own arguments. None of us, after all, really and truly believes we hold exactly the right views on all the important issues at any given moment in time. We’re always learning new things, refining our views, and having to adjust them to shifting circumstances.

The second, and in some respects the more subtle, thing to be learned from the comments of Washington and Berlin is that they were speaking as empiricists, as individuals interested in gaining greater knowledge as a means to gaining greater wisdom. That is quite a different approach from being, say, ideologues who hermetically seal themselves off from data and arguments that challenge their views.

But here’s the dirty little secret. All of us are guilty, to one degree or another, of “epistemic closure” and confirmation bias. In addition, and for understandable reasons, we all tend to self-segregate. Among other things, there’s a natural human tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer us support and encouragement. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place in our lives for intellectual and spiritual fellowship.

The question is where each of us falls on the continuum and whether we recognize intellectual rigidity in ourselves rather than others (which is one of the easiest sports known to man).

Recently I had a conversation with a treasured friend, an individual I have consistently turned to at critical junctures in my own life. He was visiting Washington and we had a lovely chat, during which he told me that as he gets older he finds himself to be a person characterized by less certitude on a range of issues.

What he was getting at wasn’t evidence of an existential crisis or a loss of faith. (His confidence in the love and sovereignty of God has actually grown over the years, with the result being he’s become more relaxed in his need to figure things out and to tie down loose ends.) What he meant, as I understood him, is that certain kinds of certitude actually inhibit the search for truth; that often it doesn’t take into account the subtleties and complexities of life; and that certain beliefs we might hold in the abstract dissolve once they make contact with real life, including when we learn first-hand the stories of people and their own struggles and triumphs along the way.

It turns out that life in this world–in politics, in philosophy, in theology, in our everyday lives–isn’t quite as neat and tidy as we might have thought.

Read Less

Returning Politics to Its Rightful Place in American Life

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

Read More

While appearing on The News Hour last Friday, David Brooks was asked about how America changed as a result of the Kennedy presidency and his assassination.

Brooks argued they changed the way we define presidents and politics, that if you read President Eisenhower’s farewell address, it provides a very limited and modest sense of what government can do. “Kennedy comes in with that inaugural, and promises to bear any burden, pay any price, to end disease,” Brooks went on to say. “It becomes much more utopian. And that sort of utopian sense that politics can really transform life is underlined by his charisma, the charisma of an office, and then it’s underlined even more by the martyrdom, and by the mystique of Camelot that grows up.”

The effect of that, Brooks went on to say, is “the enlargement of politics” and the “subsequent disappointment when politics can’t deliver that sort of Camelot dream … And so it’s perversely, I think, inflated politics, created a much more image-conscious politics, but then led to disillusionment, as politics can’t live up to that sort of mirage of sort of religiosity.”

There’s much wisdom in these observations. For Kennedy and liberals in general, politics is the means through which idealism is pursued. Conservatives tend to be somewhat resistant to that outlook, believing politics is the way we should solve public problems–but believing as well that idealism should be pursued much more in our private lives, outside of the political arena.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean politics can’t take on special significance at particular moments in time. And it isn’t to downgrade the importance of politics in the least. But it is to say that when politics is done right and well, it allows the space for a free people to pursue excellence.

And of course the more grandeur and utopian hopes we invest in politics, the more likely it is that people will turn against it, as politics and government fail to produce the wonders and miracles we’re told to expect. For more, see Obama, Barack (2008), and promises like these.

One of the chief contributions of conservatism is to help people to understand the limitations of politics, to place more modest expectations on it, and to return politics in its rightful place in American society.  

Read Less

Krauthammer On Things That Matter

Things That Matter is a collection of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary writings over the last 30 years. For those of us who have admired Krauthammer from the moment we first read him–and for a younger generation, from the moment they first watched him on Fox News–this volume has obvious appeal. It’s a marvelous, and at times quite moving, collection.

But I want to draw attention to the book’s introduction, which is new and autobiographical. Krauthammer writes about his upbringing and journey from medicine to politics, including a fascinating account of his intellectual evolution. What people might also find interesting is that his book was originally going to be a collection of his writings about everything but politics–on things “beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” I’ll let Dr. Krauthammer takes it from there:

But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.

Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

In reflecting on the place of politics in the hierarchy of human disciplines, and building on the observations of John Adams, Krauthammer writes, “the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.” He adds this: “the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.”

Read More

Things That Matter is a collection of Charles Krauthammer’s extraordinary writings over the last 30 years. For those of us who have admired Krauthammer from the moment we first read him–and for a younger generation, from the moment they first watched him on Fox News–this volume has obvious appeal. It’s a marvelous, and at times quite moving, collection.

But I want to draw attention to the book’s introduction, which is new and autobiographical. Krauthammer writes about his upbringing and journey from medicine to politics, including a fascinating account of his intellectual evolution. What people might also find interesting is that his book was originally going to be a collection of his writings about everything but politics–on things “beautiful, mysterious, profound or just odd.” I’ll let Dr. Krauthammer takes it from there:

But in the end I couldn’t. For a simple reason, the same reason I left psychiatry for journalism. While science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture, chess, space, sports, number theory and all things hard and beautiful promise purity, elegance and sometimes even transcendence, they are fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics.

Politics, the crooked timber of our communal lives, dominates everything because, in the end, everything – high and low and, most especially, high – lives or dies by politics. You can have the most advanced and efflorescent of cultures. Get your politics wrong, however, and everything stands to be swept away. This is not ancient history. This is Germany 1933… Politics is the moat, the walls, beyond which lie the barbarians. Fail to keep them at bay, and everything burns.

In reflecting on the place of politics in the hierarchy of human disciplines, and building on the observations of John Adams, Krauthammer writes, “the glories yielded by such a successful politics lie outside itself. Its deepest purpose is to create the conditions for the cultivation of the finer things, beginning with philosophy and science, and ascending to the ever more delicate and refined arts.” He adds this: “the lesson of our history is that the task of merely maintaining strong and sturdy the structures of a constitutional order is unending, the continuing and ceaseless work of every generation.”

If, as the saying goes, every anthropologist loves his tribe, then I suppose that everyone who has devoted his or her life to public affairs (as I have) loves politics. Now it would be silly to pretend that politics doesn’t include some darker sides; that it doesn’t draw to it people who are narcissistic, who thirst for power for its own sake, and who choose their self-interest over the general interest. And much of politics, depending on the level at which one is involved, can involve mundane and fairly prosaic matters. All true. (And all qualities attendant less to politics per se than to our fallen human nature.)

But there is also this. We should care about politics because political acts can have profound human consequences. It makes a very great difference whether people live in freedom or servitude; whether government promotes a culture of life or a culture of death; whether the state is a guardian or an enemy of human dignity. The end of government, James Madison wrote, is justice.

So yes, politics and governing is fraught with temptations and dangers. There are plenty of people who bring dishonor to the enterprise. But at the risk of sounding out of touch with our times, there is something ennobling about politics, at least when done properly. We cannot neglect the importance of our laws or the political philosophies in which we root our laws because we cannot neglect their influence on our lives. Such are the duties of citizenship in a free society.

That is, I think, what Charles Krauthammer is saying; and why what he is saying matters so very much.

Read Less

Public Revulsion at Our Political Institutions

The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, in examining the trends of recent polls, find trust and confidence in government to handle domestic and international problems at their lowest level in 40 years. Two-thirds of the public say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Anger is rising, and the number of people who say government is too powerful is at an all-time high.

One recent poll found President Obama’s approval rating down to 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. A survey by the Gallup organization shows the GOP is viewed favorably by just 28 percent of Americans, the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. The approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. And only 18 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest government satisfaction rating in Gallup’s history of asking the question dating back to 1971.

“What is stunning about these results is just how hard and how quickly public attitudes have landed on the shutdown,” according to Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. He said the poll showed “a broad disgust for the political system.”

Read More

The American Enterprise Institute’s Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, in examining the trends of recent polls, find trust and confidence in government to handle domestic and international problems at their lowest level in 40 years. Two-thirds of the public say they are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Anger is rising, and the number of people who say government is too powerful is at an all-time high.

One recent poll found President Obama’s approval rating down to 38 percent, the lowest of his presidency. A survey by the Gallup organization shows the GOP is viewed favorably by just 28 percent of Americans, the lowest number for either party since Gallup began asking the question in 1992. The approval rating of Congress is 11 percent. And only 18 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, the lowest government satisfaction rating in Gallup’s history of asking the question dating back to 1971.

“What is stunning about these results is just how hard and how quickly public attitudes have landed on the shutdown,” according to Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. He said the poll showed “a broad disgust for the political system.”

That’s certainly understandable, given the governing fiasco that we find ourselves in. And as a conservative, I have sympathy with those who are worried about the size, scope, and power of the federal government. 

At the same time, anyone who believes politics matters and, at its best, involves the (imperfect) pursuit of justice and the common good has to find this present moment discouraging and disquieting. However we got here and whoever is to blame–and we all have our opinions about the hierarchy of responsibility–the effects are badly damaging the case of those who believe, with the founders, that “the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim.” Right now our political institutions are held in contempt. That is not a good place to be for a self-governing republic.

Now it needs to be said that the public has some complicity in all this, since our political institutions largely reflect their competing–and in some instances, contradictory–passions and desires. They are the ones who elect Louie Gohmert and Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Rand Paul, a conservative GOP House and a liberal Democratic president, and expect them to find common ground. It’s easier said than done. We’re dealing with public officials who represent constituents who don’t simply hold different policy views; they hold fundamentally different worldviews. Still, it is the job of our elected representatives, and especially the president, to reconcile these things; to use reason and judgment to temper passions. Because a lot is at stake. 

Government is, in the words of the 19th century economist Alfred Marshall, “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” A precious human institution is being degraded and debased by those to whom we have entrusted its care. To say so is an entirely reasonable judgment. And a damning one, too.

Read Less

Jody Bottum’s World-Weariness

Joseph Bottum, formerly the editor of the conservative-leaning religious journal First Things, has written an essay in Commonweal magazine titled, “The Things We Share: The Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” The essay got a big assist with a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Bottum isn’t saying he personally supports same-sex marriage; he’s saying he believes the Catholic Church should give up its opposition to the government sanctioning same-sex marriages. His shift on the issue has elicited, and will continue to elicit, quite a response, including this insightful one from Rod Dreher. 

I want to set aside for the moment Bottum’s arguments related to same-sex marriage and focus instead on a quote Bottum gave to the Times.

“I’ve given up on politics,” Mr. Bottum said, as we sat on his wide porch after lunch. “I’ll vote Republican, because I’m a Republican. But I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.”

I have several reactions to this, starting with this one. What exactly does it mean to “give up on politics”? To give up on the importance of national elections? To give up the battle of ideas in which politics is the arena? To give up on the back-and-forth about matters like war and peace, justice and injustice, and the moral good?

Read More

Joseph Bottum, formerly the editor of the conservative-leaning religious journal First Things, has written an essay in Commonweal magazine titled, “The Things We Share: The Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” The essay got a big assist with a story in the New York Times.

Mr. Bottum isn’t saying he personally supports same-sex marriage; he’s saying he believes the Catholic Church should give up its opposition to the government sanctioning same-sex marriages. His shift on the issue has elicited, and will continue to elicit, quite a response, including this insightful one from Rod Dreher. 

I want to set aside for the moment Bottum’s arguments related to same-sex marriage and focus instead on a quote Bottum gave to the Times.

“I’ve given up on politics,” Mr. Bottum said, as we sat on his wide porch after lunch. “I’ll vote Republican, because I’m a Republican. But I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.”

I have several reactions to this, starting with this one. What exactly does it mean to “give up on politics”? To give up on the importance of national elections? To give up the battle of ideas in which politics is the arena? To give up on the back-and-forth about matters like war and peace, justice and injustice, and the moral good?

Memo to Jody Bottum: Politics is one place–not the only place, but one important place–where we work for the good and health of our earthly city. Politics produced the American Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil Rights Act. In the 20th century politics produced leaders like Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, and FDR. There are many other achievements and individuals one could name. Are we supposed to believe such things simply don’t matter anymore? That we should be indifferent to who our political leaders (and therefore, among other things, our Supreme Court Justices) are? Is politics just one giant game of Trivial Pursuit?

Such a view isn’t intellectual or morally serious–and because Bottum is a serious individual, I assume such statements must be the product of something else. I’ll assume world-weariness for now.

As for Bottum’s claim that “I don’t believe a change in culture can come from politics. It can only come from re-enchantment with the world.” This statement, too, is false. As Michael Gerson and I argue in City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, sometimes culture is upstream of politics–but sometimes politics is upstream of culture. The interaction between the two is constant and ongoing. 

“A polity is a river of constantly changing compositions,” George Will wrote in Statecraft as Soulcraft, “and the river’s banks are built on laws.” The laws of a nation embody its values and shape them, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect, sometimes immediately and often lasting. The most obvious examples from our own history concern slavery and segregation, but there are plenty of others, from welfare to education, from crime to drug use, to Supreme Court decision like Dred Scott v. Sandford, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, and Roe v. Wade.

Laws express moral beliefs and judgments. Like throwing a pebble into a pond, the waves ripple outward. They tell citizens what our society ought to value and condemn, what is worthy of our esteem and what merits our disapprobation. They both ratify and stigmatize. That is not all the laws do, but it is among the most important things they do.

The welfare system we had for much of the 20th century undermined personal responsibility and upward mobility–and the passage of welfare reform in 1996 started to reverse it. Rudy Giuliani’s policies in the 1990s helped transform New York, not only making it a far safer city but dramatically improving its spirit and ethos.

One final example: In April 1963 a group of eight Birmingham clergy members made an argument about the limits and dangers of political activism. In the Birmingham News, the clergymen criticized civil-rights activism as “unwise and untimely,” and urged Christians to show patience. (Perhaps they even believed the only way to end segregation was to rely on “enchanting” individuals like George Wallace and “Bull” Connor.)

Martin Luther King Jr., then in the Birmingham City Jail, began writing a response. “Frankly,” he said, “I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the views of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” Dr. King’s counter-argument was simple and convincing: patience for political injustice comes more easily for those who are not currently experiencing injustice. The result was one of the masterpieces in American political thought, King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Changing a culture of bigotry required not just waiting for changes in hearts; it required changes in laws. And the important work of instituting the right laws won’t be achieved by the world-weary among us.

Read Less

Church, State, and the Role of the Family

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Read More

Julia Shaw at Public Discourse has an interesting review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, How the West Really Lost God. The practice of analyzing (and criticizing) the West’s spiritual condition is not new, but Eberstadt, according to the review, posits a new theory: the falling birthrate was more a cause than effect of societal secularization. Eberstadt finds the theories of intellectual secularization insufficient to explain the phenomenon:

For instance, some blame rationalism and the Enlightenment for crowding out God. Others accuse consumerism. Sometimes, we are told that secularization results once people realize they no longer need the imaginary comforts of religion, or that the catastrophic world wars caused men and women to lose their faith. Many of these theories have a kernel of truth, but Eberstadt argues convincingly that none is sufficient to explain the whole picture because none can explain the ebb and flow in religious belief.

These theories, she writes, do contribute to our understanding of the West’s declining religiosity. They just can’t supply the whole answer. The missing piece is the family:

Family life is not an outcome of belief but a conduit to religious faith….

Eberstadt shows that strong family formation means more God. America enjoys a higher degree of religiosity than European countries, because “there are more families following the traditional model in America, even today, than in Europe.” Indeed, the post-war American baby boom coincided with a religious boom.

Conversely, weak family formation (e.g., illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce) means less God. The countries that have experienced religious decline have seen the natural family at its weakest. The French lost God earlier than other Western nations, because they stopped having babies and forming families in the late eighteenth century. Scandinavia, an area that has experienced dramatic decline in religious belief, has a high divorce rate and late marriage, and although there is a high rate of out-of-wedlock births, the total birth rate is very low. Countries that stop marrying and giving birth also stop attending church.

Correlation does have some explanatory power, but there is more to this story to buttress the case for the connection between faith and the family. One missing ingredient here is politics, because as the West “lost God,” it didn’t really lose religion–it simply substituted political religions for its Judeo-Christian past. Shaw and Eberstadt mention rationalism, the Enlightenment, and late 18th-century France as an early example–and it’s a good one.

The French Revolution was not a case of politics triumphing over religion. It was a case of a messianic political religion triumphing over the church. The language and symbolism of the Revolution were soaked in the concept of regeneration and rebirth. Religion had been so central to life in 18th-century Europe that it had to be appropriated by the church’s enemies because of its idealistic and aspirational language. As Michael Burleigh notes in Earthly Powers:

The attempted fusion of Church and Revolution through the Constitutional Church had been a divisive failure. So why not elevate the Revolution itself into the religion? After all, it had its creeds, liturgies and sacred texts, its own vocabulary of virtues and vices, and, last but not least, the ambition of regenerating mankind itself, even if it denied divine intervention or the afterlife. The result was a series of deified abstractions worshipped through the denatured language and liturgy of Christianity.

Because the French Revolution ushered in the new (and persistent) age of messianic politics, the state became a rival to the church–and later to organized religion in general in the West. This is one reason the value of the separation of church and state became truly realized with regard to protecting the former from the latter. It’s what Roger Williams meant when in the 17th century he said “when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the World, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe … and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day.”

A century later, as William M. Wiecek noted, the divide became stark:

For the antinomian divine, God’s garden (the church) had to be protected against the profane incursions of the ungodly (the wilderness). For the Enlightenment rationalist, on the other hand, the state had to be protected from the church, lest power-avaricious clergy corrupt the secular order.

Returning to the family, we see not only its role in incubating religious practice and tradition in each new generation but also the political outlooks that may logically result from it. Studies have suggested, for example, that conservatives in America have larger families than liberals, and that conservative church attendance is double that of liberals. Might there be a reverse connection along the lines Eberstadt argues in this separate context? Might conservatives be more religious because they have more children? It would certainly not be the only reason, of course, but perhaps an underestimated contributing factor.

While we’re at it, might having children encourage a more politically conservative outlook? Having families certainly affects a person’s interaction with the state, not just on basic issues of taxes and services but of voluntary economic organization. In his review of Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune, Benjamin Friedman notes the age-old existence of risk-sharing within families. In a footnote, he adds: “Risk-sharing within families continues to be important. According to some estimates, even small families can internally insure against nearly three-quarters of the income risk associated with individual family members’ uncertain length of life.”

This is not to claim that having more children means less dependence on the state, in the aggregate or otherwise. But it may affect the kind of dependence on the state, and the mere existence of the opportunity for risk-sharing encourages a ubiquitous reminder of the state’s proper role in human affairs and its lack of monopoly on fulfilling the needs of its citizens. This is not the separation of church and state, but rather the separation of state and individual. I’m not suggesting the purpose of having a family is for economic abstractions like risk-sharing. Only that Eberstadt is surely on to something when she offers renewed credit to the family’s impact on society at large.

Read Less

Politics, Perceptions, and Optical Illusions

One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.

For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.

We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.

I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.

Read More

One of the things that has long intrigued me is how people of different political and ideological attitudes can look at the same set of facts and interpret them in entirely different ways.

For example, it’s no secret to readers of this site that I’m a conservative who views a whole range of issues–the size and reach of government, taxes, entitlement programs, education, immigration, health care, abortion, America’s role in world affairs, and so forth–in a particular way. One of my long-time friends, a man who has played a significant role in my Christian faith, is a liberal who disagrees with me on virtually everything having to do with politics. He’s smart, informed, and has integrity. We’ve had good, rich conversations over the years. Yet there’s very little common political ground we share.

We simply look at the same issues, the same events, in a fundamentally different way.

I thought about my friend while reading Jesse Norman’s outstanding biography Edmund Burke: The First Conservative. In the second half of the book, devoted to Burke’s political philosophy, Norman invokes the Muller-Lyer illusion, a benchmark of human visual perception in which two lines of the same length appear to be of different lengths, based on whether the fins of an arrow are facing inward or outward.

Now there are different theories as to what explains variations in perception, but what we do know is that different cultures perceive the illustrations in substantially different ways. For example, as Norman explains, Europeans and Americans are much more likely to believe the shaft of one arrow is longer (by as much as 20 percent) than the shaft of another. The San foragers of the Kalahari desert, on the other hand, aren’t susceptible to the illusion; for them, the lines (correctly) look the same length. One possible explanation for this is that the more one lives in a “carpentered world,” one with straight lines, right angles, and square corners, the more likely one is to be fooled.

Jesse Norman writes, “Even humans’ visual perceptions appear to be partly culturally determined. People from other cultures literally see things differently.” Norman goes on to write something Burke understood as well as anyone ever has: “culture matters.”

Now, this doesn’t mean that culture is all that matters. Or that all perceptions are equally valid or equally right. Or that there is no objective truth. Or that there’s not a basic core to human nature or common attitudes that are shared across nearly all cultures.

But there is a useful analogy that can be drawn from this optical illusion for our understanding of political debates. American liberals and conservatives live in the same country, but they often perceive things in fundamentally different ways. We mistakenly believe that those we disagree with politically have the same interpretive lens we do. We see something happening and consider it unfair or unjust. And because we assume others see the same thing we do, we’re agitated, even angered, because they draw different conclusions from ours. That is to say, we assume others see the same injustice we do and therefore ought to react the same way we do. If not, the explanation must be indifference, or worse. To embrace a different view than ours is therefore not just an analytical mistake; it’s a moral failure. Which explains why political debates so often degenerate into ad hominem attacks.

What often happens, in fact, is that we view the same event from alternate angles. The light refracts differently for those on the left, in the middle, and on the right. One person sees the issue of gay marriage as a matter of equality and human dignity; another person sees it as a matter of teleology, the complementarity of the sexes, and the welfare of a vital institution. A person on the right might have viewed Bill Clinton’s actions in the aftermath of his affair with Monica Lewinsky as a crime that deserved impeachment and conviction; a person on the left might have believed it was an example of a right-wing conspiracy run amok which resulted in prosecutorial overreach.

Another concrete example is welfare reform in the mid-1990s. Conservatives favored it because they believed it would help end a pernicious culture of dependency; liberals opposed it because they thought it would do terrible harm to poor children. If as a liberal you assumed conservatives perceived things as you do–if you assumed they knew, deep in their hearts, that millions of children would join the ranks of the homeless if welfare reform were passed into law but still didn’t care–it would be easy to think conservatives were cruel. Easy and unfair. This kind of thing happens on both sides.

Which brings me back to my friend. I’m convinced he’s wrong and that I have the better arguments. But I have no doubt that he’s a person who cares about justice and the good of society. Yet for a host of complicated reasons, we simply view the (political) world in vastly different ways. We’ve had some intense disagreements over the years, but our friendship has never frayed. Why? Because we both accept that we’re seeing the same set of facts but almost instantaneously we begin to interpret them in very different ways. Which leads me to a couple of conclusions.

The first is that I’d be wise to more often–not always, but more often–give the benefit of the doubt to others as I do to my friend. The second is that some of our most important political work is cultural in nature, by which I mean shaping our deepest perceptions and worldviews. Different moral and philosophical presuppositions lead to very different views on public policy matters. We tend to have intense debates about the latter without properly taking into account the former. We might want to try it the other way around, if only to clarify our differences and upgrade our public debates. But of course all of this needs to be done in a responsible way, with a touch of grace and propriety. Otherwise we could all end up sounding like this.

Read Less

Conservatives and Collapsing Trust in Government

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 26 percent of those surveyed say they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73 percent say they can trust the government only some of the time or never. “Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government,” according to the study.

It’s clear that the Obama years, rather than deepening public confidence in government, has had the opposite effect. A president who has almost limitless faith in government is having a corrosive effect on its reputation. To some of us this is not an irony but an inevitability.

In this environment, conservatives can offer several arguments, the most obvious of which is this: Right now the federal government is doing far more than it should, doing very little of it well, and doing outright harm in far too many circumstances.

Read More

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, only 26 percent of those surveyed say they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73 percent say they can trust the government only some of the time or never. “Majorities across all partisan and demographic groups express little or no trust in government,” according to the study.

It’s clear that the Obama years, rather than deepening public confidence in government, has had the opposite effect. A president who has almost limitless faith in government is having a corrosive effect on its reputation. To some of us this is not an irony but an inevitability.

In this environment, conservatives can offer several arguments, the most obvious of which is this: Right now the federal government is doing far more than it should, doing very little of it well, and doing outright harm in far too many circumstances.

Beyond that, conservative lawmakers could respond not by saying they’ll dismantle government, which is neither realistic nor wise. Rather, they could present themselves as those best equipped to re-limit, reform and modernize government–including our tax code, entitlement and immigration systems, regulatory regime, and schools. Many of these programs were designed decades ago, when circumstances were profoundly different, and they are badly out of date and out of touch. One example: our current immigration policy, passed into law the same year (1965) the Beatles met Elvis and The Sound of Music was the biggest grossing film in America, created a bias toward so-called family reunification. Today we need to alter our approach by tightening family reunification and substantially increasing visas for high-skilled workers.

I’d add two other points. The first is that conservatives in the 1990s experienced remarkable success against three seemingly intractable problems–welfare dependency, drug use, and violent crime–not by scaling back government’s involvement but by implementing better public policies at both the federal and local level. The massive drop in crime, for example, was attributable to several factors, including higher incarceration rates, an increase in police per capita, improvements in policing techniques, and addressing urban disorder and vandalism, which have a magnetic attraction to criminals.

The second point is that conservatives should recognize that the hemorrhage of trust in government is harmful to a liberal democracy (as well as something of a self-indictment). Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is quite another. It is hard for citizens to fully love their country if they have utter disdain for its government. Indeed, sustained contempt for America’s government often leads one to feel ashamed of America.

The 19th century economist Alfred Marshall described government as “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way.” Thinking of government as a precious human institution doesn’t come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. It’s easy to understand why, given the damage government is doing on a daily basis. Still, there’s an important truth in Marshall’s insight. And there’s a world of difference between showering dismissive contempt on government versus restoring respect for government by re-limiting and reforming it.

It seems to me that conservatives should, for philosophical and practical reasons, make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again take great pride in.

Read Less

Mike Huckabee and the Mind of God

Shortly before the election, former Governor Mike Huckabee narrated an ad urging Americans to vote according to conservative biblical principles.

“Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity,” he says in a Value Voters USA ad. “Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” Governor Huckabee goes on to pinpoint the issues that will be recorded in eternity.

“Many issues are at stake, but some issues are not negotiable,” Huckabee says. “The right to life from conception to natural death. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined. It is an egregious violation of our cherished principle of religious liberty for the government to force the church to buy the kind of insurance that leads to the taking of innocent human life.”

This ad sparked some lively discussion, including in this interview with Jon Stewart.

Now I’m quite sympathetic to those who believe religious faith has a place in the public square. But I find the ad Governor Huckabee appeared in to be problematic, perhaps because I tend to be wary of those who claim we know which votes will have eternal significance and, in the process, can provide us with the hierarchy of God’s concerns.

Read More

Shortly before the election, former Governor Mike Huckabee narrated an ad urging Americans to vote according to conservative biblical principles.

“Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity,” he says in a Value Voters USA ad. “Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire?” Governor Huckabee goes on to pinpoint the issues that will be recorded in eternity.

“Many issues are at stake, but some issues are not negotiable,” Huckabee says. “The right to life from conception to natural death. Marriage should be reinforced, not redefined. It is an egregious violation of our cherished principle of religious liberty for the government to force the church to buy the kind of insurance that leads to the taking of innocent human life.”

This ad sparked some lively discussion, including in this interview with Jon Stewart.

Now I’m quite sympathetic to those who believe religious faith has a place in the public square. But I find the ad Governor Huckabee appeared in to be problematic, perhaps because I tend to be wary of those who claim we know which votes will have eternal significance and, in the process, can provide us with the hierarchy of God’s concerns.

It’s not at all clear to me, for example, that a vote against the same-sex marriage initiative in Maryland has more eternal significance that our policies on genocide, world hunger, sexual trafficking, slavery, religious persecution in Islamic and Communist nations, and malaria and global AIDS. A study at the University of British Columbia found that George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years. Might that have more eternal significance than knocking on doors for Todd Akin? 

My point isn’t that Mike Huckabee’s troika of issues aren’t important; it’s that I don’t have confidence that we know the mind of God well enough to declare which legislative votes or particular initiatives matter most to Him.

Nor am I saying that people of faith shouldn’t focus on different issues, given their particular interests, expertise, and calling. That is one thing, and often a good thing; but it’s quite another running an ad announcing with precision the three issues that will be recorded in eternity. Doing so places one right in the thicket of what a “faithful” and “unfaithful” Christian should believe in politics. It begins to move us down the path of a “Christian scorecard,” which I think is a bad idea, and implies that you can’t be a faithful Christian and be a progressive, which is absurd and self-refuting.  

Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t argue for our positions based on what we understand to be biblical principles. But there should be some humility when we do so, and some sense that while justice is a very serious matter, our prudential judgments on the application of justice tend to be imperfect and clouded by our bias and political predispositions. That is, for a complicated set of reasons, we’re drawn to some issues more than others — and those of us who are people of faith tend to build a theological case around the issues we’re instinctively drawn to rather than allow the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to shape our deepest concerns and commitments.

When people of faith engage in politics, then, it requires them to walk a tightrope. There are responsibilities and temptations, which is why it’s important to act with a special measure of care and thoughtfulness. In this instance, in my judgment, Governor Huckabee fell short. 

Read Less

Poverty and Politics

According to a story in the Associated Press, “the ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century.” The story goes on to say that poverty, which is closely tied to joblessness, “is spreading at record levels across many groups.” (The most recent poverty rates are from 2010; Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall.)

According to demographers:

  • Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels — 15 percent to 16 percent — will last at least until 2014.
  • Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
  • Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
  • Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.

As the election nears — it is now less than 100 days away — the issue of poverty in America will hopefully play a somewhat more central role. It’s perfectly appropriate for candidates of both parties, and at all levels, to focus on the plight of the middle class. But while the effects of the Great Recession, combined with the worst recovery on record, have taken their toll on every strata in American society, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. (I understand that the definition of poor is subjective and that what qualifies as poor in America qualifies as extravagant wealth in, say, parts of Africa.)

Read More

According to a story in the Associated Press, “the ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century.” The story goes on to say that poverty, which is closely tied to joblessness, “is spreading at record levels across many groups.” (The most recent poverty rates are from 2010; Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall.)

According to demographers:

  • Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels — 15 percent to 16 percent — will last at least until 2014.
  • Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
  • Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
  • Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.

As the election nears — it is now less than 100 days away — the issue of poverty in America will hopefully play a somewhat more central role. It’s perfectly appropriate for candidates of both parties, and at all levels, to focus on the plight of the middle class. But while the effects of the Great Recession, combined with the worst recovery on record, have taken their toll on every strata in American society, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. (I understand that the definition of poor is subjective and that what qualifies as poor in America qualifies as extravagant wealth in, say, parts of Africa.)

When he was the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, William Bennett — in pointing out that illegal drugs inflicted more harm on the underclass than any other group — used an earthquake that shook California in 1989 to make this point. Few people knew that the earthquake that hit the Bay area was more powerful than the one that hit Mexico City a few years earlier. Why? Because the casualties were much higher and the overall damage was much worse in Mexico City. The reason, Bennett said, is that when the earth shakes, the devastation often depends less on the magnitude of the quake than on the stability of the structure on which you stand.

As a general matter, the wealthy have more stable structures than the middle class, and the middle class have more stable structures than the poor. I’m not arguing that the poor ought to occupy all or even most of the attention of the political class. But those in the shadows of society should become an object of all of our attention.

A decent society, including its political leadership, should be judged in part on how well we treat the weak and the disadvantaged. That isn’t the only criterion that should be used, but it ought to matter. And so as the election draws near, the American people should judge those running for public office based in some measure on who has the best plan to assist the poor in terms of their material well-being and in helping equip them to lead lives of independence, achievement, and dignity. I’m one of those who believe that conservative policies – in economics, education, welfare, crime, and heath care, as well as in strengthening civil society and our mediating institutions — offer the greatest hope and opportunity to those who are most marginalized.

Here’s the thing, though: conservatives have to make that case. No one else will.

Read Less

Politicizing the Aurora Massacre

On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.

We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.

It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.

Read More

On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.

We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.

It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.

But I want to say a word, too, about something Jonathan touched on in his post, which is the effort by some – in this case, by ABC’s Brian Ross — to attempt to politicize this tragedy almost as soon as the bullets from the killer’s gun had found their targets. (Ross mistakenly speculated, based on the flimsiest evidence, that the killer was a member of the Tea Party. ABC has since issued a retraction and an apology.)

This kind of politicization occurs in part because reporters on the air feel they have to comment on an event when they in fact have very little to say. It is also the result, I think, of an effort to draw some larger meaning from acts that often turn out to have no larger meaning. Sometimes they are what they are: the malevolent actions of poisoned minds. But part of it, too, is a reflex by some to fit a massacre like this into a preexisting political narrative. We saw it happen in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School; the 2011 shooting spree near Tucson; and we will undoubtedly see it after today’s slaughter.

To be clear: there is such a thing as political violence. But what is troubling is the immediate assumption by some people, usually those who are part of the political class, that every massacre can be ascribed to political motivations. Acting on this assumption, they contort things in order to make them fit a convenient political template.

This effort to interpret everything through a political and partisan lens – to reduce everything to a political and partisan interpretation – is itself a disfigurement of reality. Life is a complicated and endlessly variegated thing. Politics has a role in all our lives; but for it to play such a dominant role in people’s imagination is surely not a healthy thing. And for people to immediately and instinctively take every human event – no matter how tragic and how painful — and place it in the maw of our politics is wrong and even repulsive. It exploits people’s sorrow and grief in order to score cheap political points and frame stupid political argument.

A modest and civilized society would give room to the families and friends of the dead to begin to process their shattering losses. It would give room to the police to do their work and gather evidence. It would leave room for citizens of this nation to reflect with soberness and seriousness on what has happened; to participate, if only for a brief time, in a national mourning of sorts. And it might even resist the impulse to leverage a massacre into a political culture war. It would be helpful if members of the press and politicians understood this, and acted in a way that showed some measure of decency and compassion.

Read Less

The Law as a Moral Teacher

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

Read More

Earlier this week, I spoke to a group of young professionals, most of whom are conservative. And one of the conversations I had was with a person who was asking me about the link between culture and politics, arguing—as others I know have—that culture is “upstream,” and therefore in many respects more important, than politics.

This question reminded me of a passage from the late Alexander Bickel’s book The Morality of Consent, which deals in part with the competing traditions of Locke-Rousseau and Edmund Burke in Western thought and in American constitutionalism and political process:

The unexamined life, said Socrates, is not worth living. Nor is it bearable. To acknowledge no values at all is to deny a difference between ourselves and other particles that tumble in space. The irreducible value, though not the exclusive one, is the idea of law. Law is more than just another opinion; not because it embodies all right values, or because the values it does embody tend from time to time to reflect those of a majority or plurality, but because it is the value of values. Law is the principal institution through which a society can assert its values.

That statement seems to me to be quite right, and a nice rejoinder to those who say—with what must be barely a moment’s reflection—that we cannot “legislate morality.” In fact, we have legislated/legislate morality all the time—from slavery and segregation, to abortion and same-sex marriage, to welfare and environmental laws, to crime and drug use, to immigration policy and the global AIDS initiative, to much else. Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse because we decided to legislate morality. It’s even said by some, mostly on the left, that the federal budget is a “moral document.” The law is, in fact, the most comprehensive embodiment of what a free society believes. It tells the world, and each other, who we are and what we believe.

This is not to downplay the significance of culture, which is enormously important to a society. But culture is, in some respects, subconscious and pre-social. The law, by contrast, is something that is actively thought out. That doesn’t mean it’s always well thought out, of course. But laws are a self-governing society’s conscious, willful expression of a set of beliefs and convictions. And among other reasons, that is why politics and government are, for all the complaints we (rightly) might have about them, terribly important and, at their best, something of a high calling. That’s worth bearing in mind even, and maybe especially, during a particularly ferocious presidential election.

Read Less

The Manichean Temptation

In her 1965 New York Review of Books essay on the 19th century British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot (which can be found in this collection), the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote this:

The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.” It is as if the “once-born” (to use the terms invented by Francis Newman and immortalized by William James) were reasserting themselves over the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of men and the anomalies of social action.

Bagehot, who became editor of The Economist, possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Read More

In her 1965 New York Review of Books essay on the 19th century British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot (which can be found in this collection), the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote this:

The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.” It is as if the “once-born” (to use the terms invented by Francis Newman and immortalized by William James) were reasserting themselves over the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of men and the anomalies of social action.

Bagehot, who became editor of The Economist, possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.” As it was then, so it remains today.

Part of the explanation for this is that many of us who are active in politics eventually choose a side—whether it be the side of an individual, a political party, or a political philosophy. And once we do, we’re all on one side or all on another. As a result, we often lose our detachment and sense of distance. We go in search of facts to reinforce pre-existing views. Pastels are replaced by primary colors.

It’s important to point out here that the qualities Bagehot possessed are not antithetical to a principled worldview or advocacy. Seeing complexities in situations doesn’t mean that all politicians and all political ideologies are created equal. Nor is truth always equidistant between two end points. There’s far more to say for the philosophy of Adam Smith than for Karl Marx.

But what Himmelfarb found admirable in Bagehot, I think, was his refusal to hermetically seal himself off when it came to considering the merits of opposing views. “His sense of reality was multifaceted,” according to Himmelfarb, “shaped by the simple and the complex, the commonplace and the recondite.”

“He was that rare species of the twice-born who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born,” she wrote.

Resisting the temptation to ascribe all virtue and intellectual merit to one’s own side while denying it to the other—as if on every issue all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other, freeing us of the need to carefully weigh competing goods—is among the more challenging things in politics. But most of us who comprise the political class struggle with this temptation more than we want to admit.

None of this is new and none of this is easy. Self-knowledge—including the ability to perceive when honest inquiry in the search for truth becomes subsidium to championing a person, a party, or a cause—rarely is. I wouldn’t deny for a moment that in politics, as in philosophy, arriving at the correct destination matters quite a lot. But so does integrity in the process. Corrupting the means to the ends can also corrupt the ends.

That’s worth bearing in mind in any age, but perhaps especially in ours, when the accelerated pace of commentary—from cable television to blogs to Twitter—makes serious thought that much harder and an appreciation for ambiguities and subtleties that much rarer.

In 21st century America—in the midst of an intense presidential election—we could all use a bit more of the sensibilities and disposition of a Walter Bagehot.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.